Sunday, 03 July 2011 07:26

Another day another hydrophone

Another day another hydrophone

by Mike Cavatorta

Today Hermann and I went to do the other side of hydrophone installation, the setup of a remote power station to supply electricity.  This station is on Squally Channel, on the East coast of Campania Island and having it running will allow us to hear vocalizations to the West of Gil Island that would not be picked up by the other hydrophones.  Once again we don the heavy, stiff survival suits for the trip on the water and load the tools and materials over the rocks onto the boat.  The batteries and the big aluminum box that holds them are on site, the rest of the equipment consists of tools, a solar-electric panel, wind turbine, antenna, and lots of heavy cables.  It doesn’t sound like much as I write this but transporting anything heavy or bulky (including myself) over the slippery jagged rocks and seaweed is a very arduous process.  I remember as child enjoying the challenge of traversing rocky shores next to the ocean, jumping from rock to rock and over seaweed and tide pools.  Now I’m just worried about getting hurt falling on the rocks or even just wet, which could equal cold and uncomfortable for the rest of the day.  Even a relatively minor injury here would send me home.

After unloading on Campania we start moving the batteries and box to a central location between the solar panel, wind turbine, transmitter box and antenna.  We are using a small and seemingly overgrown trail, I assumed that Herman had made the trail last year but he later informed me that it is a wolf trail. The site is on a small point and we set up the solar panel on the south side, nestled among the rocks above the high tide line.  The transmitter will go on the North side, close to the anchors for the hydrophone cable.  The wind turbine is installed in a spruce tree at the Eastern tip of the point.  Meeghan has barred me from climbing trees after a fall at work last year so this is all up to Hermann.  After my own fall I still have little fear of heights, but I am very nervous watching him climb and remembering that it doesn’t take a long fall to get one seriously hurt.  Hermann is occasionally swearing and cursing in German and all I can do is shout up occasional words of support/encouragement.  Spruces are not easy trees to climb, especially for a tall adult.  Again I remember being a child and really enjoying climbing trees, the challenge to see how high you can get or just what is up there.  I think neither of us is getting a whole lot of joy from tree climbing today.  At least I can be useful stripping and laying out cable.  I run cable from the solar panel and the wind turbine site to the battery box.  I think we have enough left over to connect to the transmitter box that will be placed closer to the north side of the point.  After the turbine is installed Herman hooks up the charge controller and is pleased that we are getting current from both sources.  It seems absurd that what I just described took all day to complete but it did and all the while the tide was dropping so the trip back to the boat was extra long and slippery with all the tools etc.   But this is what it takes to do this type of research and data collection in a remote area.

After a few more trips and a dive by Hermann, Squally Hydrophone Station is now up and running and providing access to the acoustic world of the whales.  Because Herman and Janie can distinguish different Orca clan and family groups from one another from hearing the calls they make, these hydrophone stations  provide a great deal of information about which Orca families are here and what areas they are frequenting.  This is one more tool for understanding both the Orcas and the importance of the marine resources of the Great Bear Rain Forest.



Tuesday, 28 June 2011 06:35

With Whales at Ulric Point

 

I spent the last two weeks at the Cetacealab outcamp at Ulric Point: a small shelter perched on some rugged rocks above the storm tide line at the northern tip of Aristazabal Island outfitted with a camp stove, food barrels, a compass, binoculars, the Big Eyes (a wonderful spotting scope), a resident mouse, data sheets, and a great scientist who has dedicated yet another season to collecting ecological information about Caamano Sound in hopes of protecting it, James.

James and I observed all the water we could see from Ulric Point on and off from morning to night each day. Among hours of rain, fog, and waves were many more hours of great conditions where we could see all the way to the horizon with the Big Eyes. And wow, the things we saw. Right after I finished pitching my tent on the day I arrived at Ulric an enormous humpback swam by the shelter, right off the rocks. As it passed by it raised a huge bumpy grey-blue and white pectoral fin out of the water before diving and disappearing from the surface for a few minutes, reappearing farther out into the sound announced by a soft blow. We saw or heard orca nearly every day. On the day Hermann took me to Ulric, he and James finished putting in the hydrophone at Ulric Point so James and I were able to listen to orca while observing them. We saw and heard mostly the A30’s and A36’s. We saw an orca calf (A50’s new calf) breach and then interact with a Dall’s Porpoise, swimming alongside it and porpoiseing with it, ending each porpoise with an enthusiastic tail slap. We saw the resident humpback feeding group bubble net feed right by the hydrophone less than 100m from shore, five river otters swim in front of the shelter one night at sunset, a very confused-looking and very cute sea otter (one of the first ever seen in Caamano sound after sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction, which is very exciting), sea lions every day, harbour seals lurking around the kelp forest, a few elephant seals, and many beautiful seabirds. Near where James and I had our tents in the forest there was a bald eagle nest and we saw the pair nearly every day perched on their favourite tree just west of the shelter, swooping down ever so often to snatch an unsuspecting fish from just below the surface of the water.

 

More from Katie in a few days!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011 10:07

Fin Whale Follows Orca

 

Blog written by Meeghan Ziolkowski

Fin Whales and Orcas

5:45 a.m.   I hear the sound of a man’s voice calling across the water.  “It’s Hermann!  There are whales.”  I jump up, stuff my feet into my boots, tear out of the tent. In less than ninety seconds  I am on the rocky point to see if Hermann’s waiting.  He’s not.  It was two sport fishermen yelling to each other about something utterly un-whale related.  I find out later that Hermann was out on the research vessel, Elemiah, trying to solve the mystery of why the “Sea Lion Camera” signal isn’t transmitting to the lab.  Sigh.

7:45 a.m.    The alarm goes off and I am up (again) and in the lab having my first cup of tea.  The VHS radio squawks, “Whale Point, Whale Point -  Elemiah.  If someone can be ready in ten minutes they can come check out the orcas reported.”  Mike dashes to grab the survival suits.  I grab our “whale bag” which is pre-packed with water, granola bars, sunscreen, camera, binoculars, sun hat, and toilet paper.  With a “marine mammal sighting sheet” in my other hand I’m off to the boat.

8:45 a.m.     We’re still in sight of the lab when we see the first orca.  It’s a familiar one, well, it’s a familiar one to Hermann; I’m just getting to know him.  It’s A46 .  He’s been sighted a few times already this spring; he spent some time in Taylor Bight feeding just the other day.  He rounds York Point and heads toward the lab.  His brother A37 and adopted A12 meander by later.

9:45   There are more orcas traveling toward us in Whale Channel.  They are far in the distance, but we hear reports over the radio.  I love this.  “Elemiah, Elemiah from Daryl, there are orca outside Bear Point.” “Whale Point, Whale Point from Logan, just calling to make sure you see the breaching humpbacks off Ashdown.”  It’s really encouraging how many people care about the whales, how friendly and helpful they are, and how much they support Hermann and Janie’s work.

As we wait for the orcas, a gorgeous fin whale glides by.  She is long and sleek, solid grey without a blemish, and massive.  AND, by her side is a calf.  They just slide through the water and sink below, Queens of the Sound, hardly making a ripple.

We try to get some identification photos, but they are moving away quickly.  (Because of their size, they manage to move very slowly, regally, and yet cover a lot of distance, fast.)

We just drift and wait.  Whale researchers are patient.  Patient and determined and passionate. It’s the kind of passion that doesn’t seem to diminish over time.  All of us volunteers get really excited when we see whales; but, it’s really telling that Hermann and Janie still get excited.

10:45     Back to the orcas who are cruising toward us in a loosely woven group.  It is impossible to overstate their beauty.  They gleam in the sunlight.  But, they are not just beautiful, they also powerful animals and precision swimmers.  One of them swims close by the boat and we can see him under the water.  I’m not sure why, but seeing a whale underwater takes my breath away.   Even though it is easier to see them clearly above water, underwater is where they live.  It’s a blurry picture, but it’s a more complete and, somehow, more intimate picture of them.

The family we are with are the “A23s”.  The oldest female and male are the siblings of a really famous orca named Corky.   She lives in a tank at SeaWorld and is the oldest captive whale.  There’s been a movement to return Corky to the wild and her family.  We watch this whale splashing along with her family and know that her sister, who would normally be right by her side, is in a small tank, far far away.

Swoosh, and they are by us.  And now they are right by a fin whale.  At first we think it is the same momma and calf, but we don’t see the baby.  Not to worry, though, the A23s are resident orcas; this means they eat fish.  (Evidently, “Mammals are friends, not food” to these whales.)  It seems that orca traveling with fin whales is fairly unusual.  James, who staffs and outpost on Ulrich Point (picture seaweed covered jagged rocks, a rickety shelter, a giant viewing scope, and a dedicated Canadian) says that he saw this only once last year.

Seeing the orcas nearby really puts fin whales into perspective.  Orcas are not petite: 25-35 feet long and up to six tons (that’s SIX elephants!)   But next to the fin whale, the orcas look like fish fry darting about a boulder.  At one point the fin whale dives facing us and we get a view of her girth.  Wow.  She’s really HUGE. “ Just to be clear,” Georgie points out, “tell them fin whales are NOT fat. They are very, very sleek.”  It’s true.  It’s just that they are so long (80 ft)—well, they are the second largest animal on earth.  This led to a very interesting discussion in the lab as I’m writing.  I had Mike looking up facts for my blog and oddly he had a hard time finding the belt size of a fin whale.  His rough calculations came to 35’ around.

Back to Elemiah and the whales.  The fin whale eventually dives away.  The orcas look like they are stopping for a snack.  They are diving and milling around, having a few fishy bites to eat.  And THEN, we hear a tonal blow--the elephantine exclamation of a humpback.

We leave the diving humpback surrounded by leaping orca, the fin whale and her calf to a day with out the presence of our curious eyes.

 

 

 

Friday, 10 June 2011 10:44

Identifying Whales

“Next to actually watching the whales, this is the best part,” Janie tells me two mornings later as we start sorting through photos to try to identify the whales.   At first I found it exhausting; later, when I got to use my new skills, it was pretty exciting.  We sorted through dozens of photos; some were clear identifications, most were blurry, side flukes, too small, too dark, too light, too curly, too twirly. . .    We sorted through them to clearly identify the five whales that were in the Bight the day before:  Sarah and calf and three juveniles new to the area.

The best part came later in the day. Mike, Georgie, and I were on our own in the lab (and doing a fantastic job of it).  Early in the day Mike spotted three humpbacks fairly far in the distance.  By my shift they were in “F, M” which means they were in West Taylor Bight, but to the south of “white log beach” about medium far from shore. The three whales came in closer and closer and then travelled slowly right by the front of the lab.  We followed them, clicking away but only getting photos of their somewhat spotty sides and tiny dorsal fins.  They were clearly resting, moving slowly, and not fluking.  Well, as one lazed by, he raised his fluke half-heartedly, barely showing two inches above the water.  They circled around the east side of Taylor Bight.  Yesterday I missed the humpbacks who were so close to shore that Janie looked one right in the eye.  I was hoping for a repeat performance.  It wasn’t quite that spectacular, but they did get pretty close.  Although, on this second pass by the lab the air became very, very stinky.  And then the jokes began about resting, pooping whales.  (Poor whales.  Sometimes research volunteers get a little punchy and for a moment forget their magnificence. It was probably just their breath, anyway.)

Back to the photo identification.  Finally, finally, the whales fluked and Mike captured some great photos.  I dashed to the computer (yes, I know, in geeky fashion, leaving the actual whales for the digital ones). While Mike continued to track the whales I downloaded the photos onto the computer.  (I quadruple checked myself during this process, terrified I’d make a mistake and somehow ruin all whale research forever by accidentally deleting something.  All went well, though.  The disc went back into the camera and the photos are safely in their neatly labelled folder.)  I thoroughly loved the tedious detective work of sorting through this new batch of photos we collected all on our own to pick out the best ones for identification and to sort out who was here.  At the end of looking at spots and dots on the flukes I picked out an id photo for each whale.

When Janie returned from the research boat I was grinning like a five year old presenting a homemade mother’s day present.  Janie very kindly accommodated by eagerness to show off my brand new photo sorting skills.  She immediately noticed that one of the whales is Dave.  (Dave is famous from early Blog entries and has been hanging around off and on this spring.)  The other two whales are new to the area.  One has a neat design on the left side of his fluke.  I think it kind of looks like a stylized lobster.  We batted name ideas around.  Georgie liked the idea of these three whales just hanging around like regular guys, “you know, Dave and his mates . ”  (Georgie is from the UK, by the way.)   I asked if we could name the lobster one “Rob” after my uncle.  He’s a good guy to hang around with!  And so the whale spotted on June 1, first picked up in a scan by Mike and noted in the log by myself as whale 6A, identified by photo #9814 is now Lobster Rob.

Monday, 06 June 2011 20:05

New Calf

This Blog entry was written by our new Intern at Whale Point -  Meeghan Ziolkowski

An odd trend has begun in my life as a cetacean researcher. I seem to have a talent for spotting humpbacks while on my way to the outhouse.

I heard a blow and dashed back to the lab. It turned out to be a very, very thrilling day with many whales, a jumble of characters, and all kinds of action.

We started out watching two humpbacks feeding in West Taylor Bight. We quickly realized that we had a momma and a calf! At first Janie thought momma whale might be named Potter, and this naturally led to brainstorming “Harry Potter” names for the calf. (I secretly was rooting for “Hermione.”)

It is interesting to learn how much detective work is involved in whale research. Over the course of the day Janie took many photos. Analyzing the photos revealed that Momma was actually “Sarah.” She was given this name a few years ago by a sweet young girl who sponsored this whale with her Birthday money ( her name is also Sarah.) This was also what initiated the Sponsr a Whale program now operating through Whale Point. Looking at the pictures even more closely revealed that Sarah had a bony profile; she is a very, very big whale, but also quite thin. The calf is a very small baby, but its profile looks pretty good. Sarah seems to have been feeding her calf well, sacrificing her own fat stores. It was good to know that there is a lot of food in the Bight and that they fed all day long.

Later in the day another whale wondered into the Bight near Sarah and her calf and then moseyed off to the east. Katie and I called him “the mysterious stranger.” He hadn’t yet been identified, but looking at photos the next day shows that he is definitely a juvenile.

And THEN, two more juveniles joined Sarah and the calf. These two travelled in together and hung out for hours. We saw all kinds of action from them: rolling about, slapping their pectoral fins on the water, fluking, waving their flukes back and forth. Janie called this a “play/social group.” It seems, just like kittens, that they are practicing all of the behaviours and skills they need as adults. It was very exciting to watch and try to keep track of.

Oh my goodness, I just realized I didn’t mention . . . earlier in the day the calf BREACHED. Several times he just burst out of the water with his little pectorals flared by his side and then splashed down in an explosive side flop. Wow.

Friday, 03 June 2011 08:00

Setting up a Hydrophone Station

Setting up a Hydrophone Station, written by our new Intern Mike Cavatorta

The idea seems simple enough--pass a wire through a long plastic pipe to protect it from wind, waves, wildlife and passing boats so that an underwater microphone (hydrophone) can record whale vocalizations. But in a remote wilderness location every tool and piece of hardware must be carried on a small boat capable of landing against rock ledges and hauled to the worksite over often steep and slippery rocks. And then Hermann has to get on his SCUBA gear and brave the frigid water and dangerous conditions to secure the pipe under water.

This means a pretty basic set of tools and a generator to run them. We are a long way from any utilities so hydrophone signals must be sent back to the lab via radio transmitter and the power supply for that must be provided on site in the form of a small wind turbine and photovoltaic panel hooked up to batteries and controls.  Everything here depends on a complex interlocking set of logistics that has been developed to overcome weather, distance, and isolation and which depend on a high degree competence and physical endurance.  I was amazed by the amount of physical labour involved in simple tasks and the ingenuity required to make up for the lack of many of the resources (for example,  a hardware store you can get to in less than a day) that I’d come to take for granted back home.

But snaking the cable through the pipe was the first confrontation I’d had with the physical requirements of doing field science.  Back home I do construction and carpentry work so I’m not new to physically demanding situations but I had no idea how much sheer effort goes into building the infrastructure required to do this work.  To get the wire to go through a hundred plus feet of one inch plastic tubing involved at least two people grasping and violently shaking the pipe while another person fed in a very flaccid wire from the end.

How much work can it be? A surprising amount and I found myself exhausted and sweating after about a minute. The process was effective but gave me a new appreciation for the euphemism “pushing string”. The wire was not at all stiff, but was smooth and it did fit in the pipe loosely so that with sufficiently violent shaking it could be coaxed into creeping along. After about half an hour I was really tired but consoled myself with the thought that at least I was getting a good workout and I imagined that this might be the kind of thing that with the right marketing you could get people to pay to do.

It’s the new exercise creation that’s sweeping the nation- hydrophonaerobics.   Our ecotourism themed studios are decorated with live western red cedars and banana slugs, powered by a combination of small wind turbines and photovoltaic panels (plus the technology we’re developing to build a series of “shake powered” generators).  Our certified HPA field scientist trainers certify that violently shaking a long length of stiff plastic tubing is the most effective workout in the known universe.

There could even be a vegan diet that goes with it based on powdered imitation milk and “soy halibut.”

In the end the goal was accomplished and we loaded up the boat to go to Bear Point, a rocky outcrop that protrudes a little into Whale Channel and drops steeply into the water. This is a perfect location to secure a hydrophone 60 to 80 feet below the surface of the sea to pick up whale calls. After the gear was unloaded amd Hermann was suited up for a dive he showed us how to use the radio in case of an emergency.  But Meeghan and I realized that there was nothing we could do help Herman in a diving emergency and that the radio was basically to save ourselves if he didn’t come back up.  He explained that as long as we could see bubbles he was fine and we had an anxious moment when we lost track of the bubbles, but he was just farther from shore than we had been looking.  Herman narrowly averted disaster when a heavy weight slipped from the spot it had been temporarily placed in above him and came hurtling down at him.  We were very happy to see him when he came up and told us that the hydrophone was in position and we could head home.

 

Monday, 30 May 2011 08:54

Naming Dave

The day started with curious sniffs at the door of my tent. Cohen, Janie's golden retriever puppy, pushed his nose into my hand as I stepped out of my tent. After admiring the pinks and oranges of the sunrise  highlighted in a patch of whispy clouds over the mountains I stepped into the lab. Just as I was pushing the door closed behind me Meeghan pointed excitedly out the window: "Whales! Oh, there's TWO!" Mike and Hermann were already on the boat in Taylor Bight, just leaving on a mission to fix a hydrophone, and drove the boat toward the whales to get a closer look. Mike and Hermann confirmed over the radio that these were indeed two fin whales. I ate breakfast while watching the fins out the lab window. What a great start to the day.

Later in the morning a young humpback made its way into Taylor Bight. As happens each time a whale appears near the lab, almost everyone on the island flocks to Whale Point in hopes of getting a good view of it. Chris, a visitor to the island and good friend of Hermann and Janie, and Chris's two young girls Maddie and Julia were amoung the crew searching the water for the next surfacing of the humpback. It's blowhole appeared, followed by a section of it's back and, of course, the humped back. The whale gracefully dove and fluked, in perfect orientation for a great ID photo. From the fluke markings Janie determined that the young whale was the same one that has been frequenting the waters around Whale Point  throughout the past week: a juvenile that hasn't been catalogued yet. "Dave!" Georgie exclaimed, "Let's name him Dave!" Julia, struggling to hold up a pair of binoculars to her eyes that were nearly as wide as her body, chanted "Dave, Dave, Dave!" "I love Dave the whale!" Thus, the young humpback was named. We are glad Dave has adopted Taylor Bight as a part of his watery abode and hope to see more of him this season.

Friday, 27 May 2011 20:11

Transients and Humpbacks

The Blog entry below was written by Georgie, one of 4 Interns that have recently arrived on Gil Island to help with our research of these grand cetaceans. Please join us daily as we up date you with all marine mammal encounters from Whale Point.

Written by Georgie, May 26th, 2011

Transients and Humpbacks

All goes quiet on the deck when the shapes vanish, we strain our eyes through scopes and binoculars, hoping to see a fin or blow. Then with remarkable stealth, black fins rise through the water, slicing silently through the surface. I remove the camera from my eyes, just to check I'm not dreaming, and gaze out at the scene before me. A longing so hard to see these mysterious creatures had led me to doubt my own vision . . . believing that wishing eyes had somehow imagined the image taking place. The sharp shape of the fin confirms the whales are transients; they had slipped into the bight from the west avoiding detection from the scopes and hydrophones.

Scrambling over tripod legs and each other, we make our way to the far end of the deck. We watch as the orcas continue their slow journey east, appreciating their perfect balance of size, grace, power and beauty. Their presence is mysterious, predatory and commanding; they are the complete masters of their environment travelling through a now eerily silent sea. The ever present juvenile sealions and porpoises were now nowhere to be seen. The group continue to pass directly by the lab, within a 100 meters of our touch; their rythmic motions and the powerful thrust of their blows are met with our gasps of awe and joy.

I look down to my right to see that Katie is overwhelmed with emotion, her hands cupped at her mouth as her eyes begin to well at the sheer beauty of the sight. The immense joy and happiness is etched on her face, to see these beautiful and majestic beings experincing the freedom of the wild to which they were born. Her mixed emotions caused by the images stark contrast to that of her only other orca memory, peering through the glass of an aquarium tank at Keiko . . . denied his right to feedom, family and an endless ocean.

As the orcas continue heading east, we begin to show concern for the humpback sighted far out in the bight just moments before. The concern increases when the orcas seem to be heading straight towards the larger whale. Whispers of fear ripple throughout the deck; everyone is confused as to why the orcas would want to target a large whale when there is an abundance of much smaller and easier prey in the bight. Meeghan and Mike watch through the scopes, hoping to make sense of this behaviour. We peer through the binoculars in hesitation, silently praying that the orcas are meerly harrassing the humpback, not sizing it up for attack.

There are splashes, big splashes. We see the orca fins circling the humpback, moving ever closer. My strong desire to see an orca hunt had soon turned into guilt as it appeard that the humpback might become prey. I put down the binoculars and tried to interpret the scene with my own eyes. I hear a voice shouting "it's ok, they're leaving." I lift the binoculars to my eyes once more and confirm what I had just heard. The orcas had started to head away from the humpback, swimming out into Whale channel and once again disappearing from sight, leaving the humpback to recover from its close call. Once the whale was out of view we all stepped inside, still finding it hard to beleive the spectacle we had all just witnessed. Janie had collected some ID photos of some of the group, using the orca catalogue we identified them as the T60s.

 The next day, I was awoken to the sound of "orca orca!" I lept out of my sleeping bag and made a hasty sprint for the lab. Pushing through the balcony doors I quickly scan the horizon, hoping to see the fins, blows . . . anything to confirm their presence. I am met by Meeghan's sympathetic eyes as I am informed I had just missed them. The ID photos of the fins concur our suspicions that it was once again the the T60s. They appear to be frequenting the bight. I console myself with this knowledge and know that I may soon have another chance to see them again.

Later the same day, the group and I are in the lab; the water is calm and the bight is quiet. We have the radio turned up high, in hopes of hearing some of the whale related chatter. We hear the words we have have hoped to hear since this morning . . .  "Killer whales." Two boats talk between one another, sharing stories of seeing some transient orcas in a location just south from the lab. A hush consumes the lab as we turn up the volume.

We continue to hear reports of these orcas that appear and then "disappear in a black hole." I take advantage of a small window between shifts to go to the house to use the internet. The radio in the house calls out for "Whale Point," again the news is about the orcas. I hear a boatsman describe the worrying scene unfurling before him, an older humpback accompanied by a juvenile are being approached by the orcas. Hermann is out on the boat already along with Mike, he alerts Janie that he is going to head over to try and make sense of what was going on. I continued to write my emails as I listened in on the radio chatter, I was hearing a running commentary of all that was happening, painting a mental image in my head.

The orcas appeared to be harrassing humpbacks once again, approaching and circling in their group.  Then a few minutes after it started the orcas seemed to be receeding, once again heading off below the surface and out of sight. Hermann had turned up in the boat just in time to see the last part of it; Mike recalls alot of splashing and commotion from the whales but no sign of an attempted attack. Janie requested over the radio that Hermann and Mike stay with the whales until they had fully recovered form their ordeal and returned to normal humpback behaviour. I turned to Janie just as confused as she was . . . Why are the group doing this to the humpbacks? We can only guess. . . sizing them up for a meal, just enjoying harrassing the whales or perhaps another reason. Who knows? But I sure hope these mysterious individuals turn up again soon . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, 04 April 2011 06:39

DFO on the Stand - By Alex Morton

On March 17 the Director General of DFO Science for the Pacific region was put on the stand at the Cohen Commission to answer questions about a Ministerial memo regarding a virus that may be killing large numbers of Fraser sockeye.  The transcripts will eventually be available from the Cohen Commission website, but in the meantime here are my notes. http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/

It was a disheartening display of avoidance behavior following in the footsteps that brought us the east coast cod collapse.

I am deeply grateful to Greg McDade and Lisa Glowacki, the lawyers that represent me at the Commission.   I am also thankful to First Nations lawyer, Brenda Gaertner who brought a powerful sense of outrage that DFO has not informed First Nations on this potentially very serious virus.

We have a long way to go, but these lawyers were a storm over passive waters. 

Alexandra Morton

 

DFO - in the business of truth?

The March 17 Cohen Commission hearing was on an internal DFO Briefing Note to the Minister of Fisheries about a virus that might be causing brain lesions and the decline in Fraser sockeye. When this memo was leaked by the Globe and Mail last November, my lawyer, Greg McDade, requested a day to address this because this subject seems key to the 19-year decline of the Fraser sockeye. Dr Laura Richards, DFO’s Director General of Science for the Pacific Region was called to the stand to speak to this issue.

Dr. Richards confirmed that DFO scientist, Kristi Miller, has indeed found evidence suggesting a virus, potentially Salmon Leukemia, could be having a devastating impact on the Fraser sockeye. Dr. Miller studies genomic profiles. Basically she reads the pattern of genes that have been switched on and off, a sort of living Braile that records the experiences of individual living creatures. This is a new field of science, but Miller’s work is so good it has been published in the world’s leading scientific journal, SCIENCE. When Miller reads the genomic profile of the Fraser sockeye, it says “retrovirus.” When Miller published her paper DFO would not allow her to speak to the press.

McDade introduced into evidence an email to me from the Minister of Fisheries that Laura Richard's had approved. The letter says DFO became aware of this potential virus in 2009, under questioning we learned DFO had in fact known about it at least a year before.

A crucial powerpoint by Dr. Miller was made public at this hearing titled “Epidemic of a novel, cancer-causing viral disease may be associated with wild salmon decline in BC.” (Download Miller powerpoint CAN185457) It suggests the genomic signature appears to be a retrovirus, that over 75% of Fraser sockeye are infected in some years and these infected fish were 16 times more likely to die than the healthy sockeye. She reports seeing this genomic viral signal in Coho and Chinook as well. In an extensive flowchart she notes Salmon Leukemia (called Marine Anemia by fish farmers) began spreading through fish farms in the early 1990s, (which is when the sockeye decline began). She reports that Salmon Leukemia can spread vertically, through the eggs, and also fish to fish. She downplays the relationship to salmon farms, but we learn later she was not allowed to test them. It is important to note this powerpoint is only Miller thinking out loud. It is not a finished report. However, she is a highly accredited scientist recognized by her peers.

Richards repeated several times that she was hoping and trying to work with Miller to find out more about this potential virus, but could not remember if Miller (a DFO employee) had actually been funded to continue this work. We know from the east coast cod collapse that DFO has prevented their scientists from reporting findings that counter policy, even if it leads to the demise of huge fisheries.

When McDade asked Dr. Richards if she knew what “vertically transmitted,” meant she answered that her brain was “fuzzy” on this at the moment. A vertically transmitted disease, means it probably did not come from the river. A virus this lethal should have extinguished itself, that continues to lethally infect large numbers of sockeye suggests a reservoir of it somewhere that the Fraser sockeye pass near to. If this viral reservoir is not in the river, and the suspect virus is found in fish farms on the sockeye migration routes ... unwanted linkages start cropping up.

A report attached to an October 2009 email states that Miller’s work is “controversial” and a communication strategy was required. McDade asked if this “strategy” was to not let the public know that a virus might be killing the majority of the Fraser sockeye. Dr. Richards countered this was “false.” However, the information was in fact kept secret until the Globe and Mail leaked it in November 2009. Richard's said DFO is not in the business of releasing information to the media.

In the next piece of evidence we see an email from Dr. Miller indicating that Laura did not want her to reveal specific information about this virus to the international US/Canadian Pacific Salmon Commission. Dr. Richards tried to counter by saying Miller had a false impression. So McDade began reading the email, where Miller writes that Laura (Richard's) did not want her to attend public meetings for fear that they would not be able to control information about the virus getting out.

Richard's repeats that Miller misrepresented the situation, that DFO was not trying to hide Miller’s work, but rather trying to get more information out of Miller.

I have attended many meetings now on the demise of the Fraser sockeye and have heard DFO bring up unconfirmed suggestions that squid, over-spawning, climate change and a potential lack of food could be causes of the demise. These are all theories that should be openly discussed, but why leave out the theory that a virus may be weakening and killing the majority of Fraser sockeye? Since Miller believes this is Salmon Leukemia, a virus that has been epidemic in salmon farms, this information runs counter to DFO policy that salmon farms have no impact. Is this why we wee never told?

McDade asked Richards why Speaking Notes provided to a Member of Parliament by DFO on the 2009 sockeye decline did not even mention the virus? (exhibit 622-A) Richards says there were other things in play, other factors, a host of factors….

McDade showed a funding proposal written by Miller asking for funds to test Atlantic salmon for signs of this virus in their genomic profile. Richard's believes these funds were granted. However, the letter the Minister sent to me contradicts Richards “DFO has not conducted research associated with this gene expression signature and salmon farms, and will not speculate on such a link.”

McDade asks Richards again if this work has been done or not. Richard's says she doesn’t know.

I have read many papers on Salmon Leukemia in farm salmon. It weakens the fish so they can die of many things or they can survive if life is not too stressful. This could explain the good 2010 year when plankton and water temperatures were exceptionally good, as well as, the 18 year decline and fish dying in the river of normally harmless parasites.

Under examination from Tim Leadem representing the Conservation Coalition we see an email from DFO communications, Terry Davis, asking if DFO has done any sockeye work to counteract the findings of Alexandra. Leadem asks, is DFO in the business of trying to counteract the work of non-DFO scientists?

Richards says “yes,” …. DFO is in the business of trying to find the truth.

Brenda Gaertner representing the First Nations Council at the Commission confronts Richards stating this potential virus is a very serious matter with potentially devasting effect on exercise of section 35 rights by First Nations.

Gaertner: What steps did you take to inform First Nations?

Richards: …. we are following normal processes

Gaertner: You are aware First Nations have informed DFO they feel there are conflicts between DFO’s obligations to First Nations and aquaculture?

Richards: it is a question of process

Gaertner: yes, process. What processes are you using to inform First Nations?

Richards: I rely on colleagues who are responsible to First Nations

Gaertner: Which colleagues

Richards: We are trying to get more information

Gaertner: There will always be more questions

Richards: …I have done everything possible to ensure Miller has funding

Gaertner: I don’t see briefing materials on this to First Nations… You are aware this could have very big impacts on First Nations rights?

Richards: My job is to inform up the line

Gaertner: As Regional Director of Science do you consider the Crown’s obligations to First Nations

Richards: It would have come into play regarding stock assessments

Gaertner: But it did not ... come into play.

The exhibits can be found at cohencommission.ca/en/Schedule/

Monday, 31 January 2011 14:55

Volunteer Program 2012

Cetacealab is a non-profit research organization located on the southern end of Gil Island along the northern coast of British Columbia. Our location is unique as we monitor the acoustic habitat of both orca and humpback whale populations in an extremely remote location. We are the only residents of Gil Island and Cetacealab the only facility. We share this island with wildlife such as wolves and black bears. Volunteers must be prepared for the remoteness of our location.

Cetacealab has established a network of hydrophone stations located from 5 to 20 km from the facility. All signals are broadcasted to the lab and digitally recorded when cetaceans are present. In early summer northern resident Orcas arrive, followed by groups of feeding humpback whales; transient orcas are found year round but not as frequent. In the last 2 years there has been an increase in Fin whale sightings in Caamano Sound.

Cetacea Lab is currently looking for  interns to operate a small out-camp to complete our research criteria. The out-camp, referred to as Ulric Point, is extremely remote. We will only consider applicants who are genuinely comfortable with the outdoors and have experienced the ruggedness of nature, have a passion for whales and can work long hours dedicated to the collection of data.

 Ulric Point is situated in a unique location on the northeast corner of Aristazabal Island. A small plywood shelter and viewing platform give an amazing view overlooking Caamano Sound, a candidate for Critical Habitat for Northern Resident Killer Whales. The purpose of this out-camp is to ensure this designation occurs. Cetacea Lab installed a hydrophone station at Ulric Point and established that during the late spring to summer months,  Orca (both resident and transient) Humpback and Fin whales can be identified daily from this location.

 This project will document the occurrence of all cetacean travel patterns, behaviour and group dynamics from this land based location. The days are long, the bugs can be bad, food is simple, fresh water limited, but the whale activity is inspiring.  If you are interested please email us for more information at:

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

We are also accepting applications for the research facility located on Gil Island

Volunteers will be asked to assist with the following:

-live recordings of cetaceans, with an emphasis on killer whale and humpback whales, these will occur day and night from the lab

- land based observation of whales from Lab facility

-boat surveys to collect digital photographs to add to our photo identification catalogue of orca, humpback and fin whales and document feeding and social behaviour during each cetacean encounter

- Identification and organization of all photographs taken from survey, data entry, good computer skills are essential

This facility is completely off the grid, powered only by sun, wind and water. Volunteers will be also expected to help in the daily activity of living so remote, this will include chopping wood, helping with the maintenance of hydrophone stations and other more labour intensive type of jobs.  Volunteers will be asked to bring their own tent for accommodation and are asked to prepare their own breakfast and lunch in a supplied kitchen area. We will have a communal dinner each night in our house - you must be able to cook and help with dinner prep. Due to our extreme remote location we have to be aware of any medical condition volunteers may have. Access to immediate medical care is very difficult to get.

To apply for a volunteer position please send a CV, with a letter describing your reason for wanting to join us this season and one letter of reference. Please use the contact form on our website.

Once your application has been received an interview via phone/skype may be arranged. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.

We will be accepting Interns from  mid-May until early September. A minimum stay of 4 weeks is required.

Please apply soon as spaces will fill very quickly.

Good Luck,

Hermann Meuter/Janie Wray

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